Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Blu-ray Review: DEMETRIUS AND THE GLADIATORS (1954)

DEMETRIUS AND THE GLADIATORS (1954)
The Limited Edition Series

Label: Twilight Time
Region: NTSC Region FREE
Duration: 102 mins
Rating: Unrated
Video: 16:9 Widescreen (2.55:1)
Audio: English DTS-HD Master Audio 4.0
Director: Delmer Daves
Cast: Victor Mature, Michael Rennie, Richard Egan, Ernest Borgnine, Susan Hayward, Debra Paget, Jay Robinson

Niche film label Twilight Time showed up on my radar a few months back when they licensed the iconic 80's vamp feature Fright Night (1985) from Columbia Pictures for what can only be described as a criminally limited edition Blu-ray run of 3,000 units. It would seem a no-brainer, right? Fright Night on Blu-ray seems like it would be a license to print money, at least in my mind. Twilight Time's limited edition run is now out of print and if you weren't quick on your point n' click to snag one it's now fetching upwards of $140 on amazon.com . Obviously there's a much larger demand for this beloved title and still there's not a more widely available 1080p release anytime in the near future is beyond me, it just strikes me as odd at a time when both Fred Dekker's cult classics Night of the Creeps (1986) and Monster Squad (1987) enjoy well-stuffed special edition Blu-rays not to mention the theatrical and DVD release of the remak but I digress, I'm really here  today to spiel about any of these films. Let it suffice it to say that I give high praise be to Twilight Time for having brought at least 3,000 of us Fright Night fans what we've been craving for some time now. 

Now Twilight Time have licensed the 20th Century Fox gladiator epic Demetrius and the Gladiators (1954) a sword and sandal sequel to The Robe (1953) a film I cannot claim to have ever seen but that didn't dampen my enjoyment one bit. In the film Demetrius (Victor Mature, Kiss of Death) is a former slave turned Christian during the reign of the mad Emperor Caligula (Jay Robinson, Francis Ford Coppola's Dracula) who is imprisoned after assaulting a Roman guard and forced to train and battle in the Roman gladiator arena for sport and spectacle where despite his initial refusal to take a life based on his Christian beliefs he rises through the ranks. His faith is tested though when his adoring and virtuous wife Lucia (Debra Paget, The Haunted Palace) covertly makes her way into the gladiator school to meet with her husband but the two become separated and she is killed during an attempted rape by Dardanius (Richard Egan), During the attack Demetrius is prevented from interfering and he prays to the Lord to protect his wife but when his words seem to go unanswered it fuels his eventual corruption and rejection of Christianity.

Meanwhile the demented Emporer Caligula becomes increasingly obsessed with evading the cold tendrils of death by obtaining the robe that Jesus wore during The Crucifixtion which he believes will grant him life everlasting, the pursuit of immortality further unravels his already frayed grasp on reality. Actor Jay Robinson as the erratic emperor is a sight to behold, chewing up the magnificent scenery with demented zeal. Let's just say that in a film also featuring the legendarily overwrought Ernest Borgnine (Escape from New York)  somehow Borgnine pales in the shadow of Robinson's deliciously over-the-top performance, it's wonderful. Anyone looking for Ernest Borgnine at his Razzie nominated best look no further than Wes Craven's supernatural thriller Deadly Blessing (1981) it's truly something unforgettable, oh sweet  Lord. 

Anyway, following Demetrius' fall from faith he carries on an affair with Senator Claudius's (Barry Jones, A Study in Terror) famously unfaithful ginger-haired wife, the stunning Isis priestess Messalina (Susan Hayward, Valley of the Dolls), who unbeknownst to Demetrius was the driving force that lead to his wife's demise albeit unintentionally. Demetrius's success in the arena soon garners him entry into the Praetorian Guard where once he renounces Christ to Caligula he is bestowed with the title of Tribune setting the stage for his return to Christianity.

The Christian themes from The Robe are present but not overwrought, in my mind they're sort of overcome by a wonderful sense of perversity and betrayal. The film at it's heart is definitely about Demetrius's test of faith but it's also wonderfully corrupt and wrought with sexual thirsts and insanity, it's enthralling stuff that makes for a keen watch with the added attraction of some magnificent old school Hollywood sets and costuming plus spectacular gladiator battles one featuring the muscle bound Demetrius battling three fierce tigers, it makes for a highly entertaining watch.
The film was shot in CinemaScope and is an opulent affair with grand set pieces and action sequences that make full use of the CinemaScope format, it's stunning stuff. Twilight Time's 1080p HD presentation is very attractive if not exactly stunning with a transfer sourced from superior elements showing only minor scratches and blemishes. The transfer is not particularly crisp or vibrant and appears a  bit soft at times, the color palette is very brown-centric. It's an attractive image but it's just not the eye-popping 1080p experience it could have been with some tender love and restoration.

Audio options include English DTS-HD Master Audio 4.0 which sounds quite pleasant with some nice use of the directionals. Pretty standard for the Twilight Time Blu-rays there's an isolated music track presenting Franz Waxman's sweeping score in DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0, it's a grand score and sounds great. I listened to it while cleaning the house and let me tell you mopping the floors never felt so epic. 

Special features on the disc include the aforementioned isolated music track, an original theatrical trailer and some very fine liner notes from Twilight Time's Julie Kirgo whose writing really adds to the viewing experience particularly if like me you know very little about the film in question, it's a wonderful appreciation. 

Watching Demetrius and the Gladiators I was totally transported back to the early 80's when I would camp out in front of the TV watching monster move matinees and sword and sandal epics all day Saturday, it's a golden feeling. As with all of Twilight Time's Limited Edition Series the Blu-ray is kept to a painfully small run of 3,000 units and available exclusively from http://www.screenarchives.org/ If you love sword and sandal epics this is a no-brainer must-buy and I say get it before it's out of print and fetching exorbitant prices online. 4 outta 5

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